ESCAPE FROM JONESTOWN How Tracey Parks escaped the murderous cult.
As a child 40 years ago, Tracy Parks fled the Peoples Temple compound just hours before Jim Jones led the largest mass suicide in history. Now, she’s sharing her story
Tracy Parks knelt on the rain-soaked, muddy airstrip, cradling her mother’s lifeless body, shaking her, trying to wake her up. The explosion of gunfire had stopped, but all around her the 12-year-old saw bodies—some dead, others bleeding and moaning. “Get in the jungle,” her father, Jerry, screamed. “Run. I’ll take care of your mother.” Tracy looked up to see her older sister Brenda, 18, sprinting across the runway towards the dark wall of trees. Before the younger girl knew it, she was right behind Brenda, racing towards the dense Guyana rainforest. “I was panicking; I wasn’t thinking. I felt like I wasn’t in my body,” remembers Tracy. “We were so scared we just kept running.”
When the fever-ridden, nearly unconscious sisters staggered out of the jungle three days later, it was into a world of almost unimaginable horror. More than 900 members of the Peoples Temple religious sect—the group that she and her family had been attempting to flee when they were ambushed—had committed mass suicide
by drinking cyanide-laced grape punch. Among the dead, 304 children. Their bodies, along with that of their charismatic, psychotic leader, Jim Jones, lay rotting, 11 kilometres away in the intense equatorial heat at the group’s compound, known as Jonestown. The Parks girls—along with their father, brother Dale, 26, and grandmother Edith Parks, 63—were five of just 36 survivors. “My brother broke the news to me little by little as the doctors were nursing me back,” Tracy recalls. “‘No-one is alive,’ he told me. ‘They’re all gone.’ ”
The Jonestown massacre—the largest mass suicide in modern history—made headlines around the world as a shocking example of how the followers of a cult could be brainwashed into evil. Hundreds of followers willingly drank poison—and parents forced cyanide-filled syringes into the mouths of children, too young to sip from cups. “This was a wake-up call,” says cult expert Rick Ross, “to show just how fragile the human mind is and how easily good, kind and reasonable people can be manipulated.”
Today, after four decades, Tracy—one of the youngest survivors—still struggles to put the “horrors” behind her. “This wasn’t suicide,” insists Tracy, now 51 and a California daycare owner. “This was murder. Those children didn’t want to die, and neither did many of the adults.” Meanwhile, her father, Jerry, 84, one of the few cultists who dared to stand up to Jones in Guyana, is battling prostate cancer and trying to push past the “guilt and shame of what I put my family through,” he says. “I’ve asked for forgiveness so I can die in peace.”
As far back as she can remember, Tracy’s life revolved around Jim Jones and his church. Drawn to the ministry’s eclectic gospel of Christianity, socialist politics and racial equality, her parents joined the Peoples Temple in the early 1960s, and by 1966 they and their three children followed Jones’s rapidly growing congregation from their home in Ohio to Ukiah, California, where he prophesied that his followers would be safe when the “nuclear bombs started dropping.” But Tracy always sensed darkness in the church, from the armed guards who stood watch over worship services to the way Jones would stomp on Bibles and rant against the government, often until two in the morning. “Even as a child sitting in these meetings,” Tracy recalls, “I’d look at all the adults around me and think, ‘ What’s wrong with these people? How can you think this is OK?’ ”
Over time, whispers of Jones’s drug use and sexual affairs with male and female followers began to surface—and his need to control every aspect of his followers’ lives grew more intense. Jones began surrounding himself with bodyguards and took to wearing dark sunglasses at all times—he said it was “because he sees too much without them on,” recalls Jerry. The increasingly paranoid, self-proclaimed “god” had begun to lose his grasp on reality, “going from bad to worse to
“Jonestown is like a bad dream that never ever seems to go away” —Tracy Parks
really bad,” says Jerry, who left the church on two occasions but returned both times.
By 1973 Jones had become obsessed with moving his church to a 1500ha jungle compound in South America that he’d leased from the government of Guyana, promising his congregants, “This is paradise. This is where we’re going. We’re getting out of this dangerous world.” That move became reality in August 1977, after a magazine published a meticulously reported story on Jones ordering the physical and emotional abuse of his congregants. Tracy, along with her parents and sister, reluctantly arrived in Jonestown in April 1978 ( brother Dale and their grandmother had moved there the year before) and quickly discovered it was anything but the paradise they’d been promised. “That place was the closest thing to hell on earth,” recalls Tracy. “The moment I saw that front gate I thought, ‘ We are going to die here.’ ”
Within hours of their arrival at Jonestown, her worst fears seemed to be realised. She recalls watching helplessly as Jones goaded a handful of followers into beating her father when he announced that he wanted to return to California. Tracy and the other children spent eight hours a day working in the fields, under a blistering equatorial sun, while Jones could be heard ranting in a haunting voice about his “enemies” over loudspeakers. Gun-toting guards watched her every move. “I dare you to try to escape,” Jones, who by then had become addicted to a range of narcotics, would threaten his followers. “You won’t last long in that jungle with the panthers and snakes.” Constantly racked by hunger and exhausted from lack of sleep, Tracy lived, she says, in a state of “constant terror,” but worst of all were the mock-suicide drills Jones called White Nights. “They could happen anytime during the day or night,” Tracy recalls. “We’d all gather together in the pavilion, and he’d tell us, ‘It’s not going to be painful. You just lie down and go to sleep.’ Everyone would be clapping, shouting, ‘ Yes, I’ll die for you.’ He got off on the excitement.”
Back in San Francisco, pressure from worried relatives of Jonestown members forced authorities to finally begin investigating Jones, who was being accused of a variety of crimes including abuse, kidnapping and money laundering. “I filed lawsuits to take away his property, and I organised relatives,” Tim Stoen, a former temple member whose son, John, 6, was being held hostage by Jones in Guyana (see sidebar), revealed in a 2016 book-tour appearance. “I did everything I possibly could.” By the time California congressman Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown on Nov. 17, 1978, with a group of reporters and family members, the drug-addled Jones had become a seething, ticking time bomb. “He was telling us that mercenaries and the CIA were lurking in the jungle, ready to kill us,” says Tracy. Her father—who once told Jones that “I didn’t come here to die” during one of his suicide drills—says he remembers feeling that “something bad was on the verge of happening.” “Death was in the air,” Jerry recalls.
During a meeting with Ryan that afternoon, Tracy’s grandmother, a longtime devotee of Jones, summoned the courage to tell the congressman that they were being held at Jonestown against their will. Ryan persuaded Jones to let him escort anyone who wanted to leave the compound back to the US. Fifteen cult members—including all six members of the immediate Parks family— followed Ryan and his party back to the airstrip. But before the plane could depart, the passengers were ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones. Ryan, three journalists and Tracy’s mother, Patricia, 44, were killed in the barrage of gunfire; nine others were wounded. While Tracy, her sister and four other teenagers hid in the jungle, Jones summoned his congregation to the open-air pavilion, telling them that soldiers would soon be “parachuting” into Jonestown to kill everyone. It was finally time to “take the potion,” he can be heard saying in a rambling, disturbing 45-minute audio recording found afterwards, urging them to drink the cyanide-laced punch that had been
prepared in nearby vats, instructing parents to keep their children calm. “Don’t be afraid to die,” said Jones. “This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide.”
Jones himself died from a gunshot to the head, although it’s unclear if it was selfinflicted or if he asked another cult member to fire the shot.
After the massacre Tracy spent nearly a month in Guyana before returning to Ukiah, California, with her father and siblings. But putting her life back together wasn’t easy. Her memories of school involve suffocating panic attacks that often resulted in her suddenly sprinting out of classrooms and “running, running, running until my legs gave out.” Other times she’d find herself “curled up in a foetal position” on a sympathetic school counsellor’s floor, sobbing. Few people in Ukiah wanted to talk about Jim Jones and “all the hurt” he brought to their community, she says. The one therapist she saw told her, “You’re going to be lucky if you’re not crazy in 10 or 15 years.”
There are physical scars as well. The dermatologist Tracy now sees every three months has told her he believes her recurring skin cancers are caused by the repeated blistering sunburns she received labouring in the Jonestown agricultural fields. Her sister Brenda died of pancreatic illness, at age 52, in 2013, having never been able to shake the horror of Jonestown. When they were escaping through the jungle, Brenda discovered she was covered in her mother’s blood and brain matter from the shooting— a trauma that haunted her until her death. “I’ve always been a fighter,” says Tracy. “Knock me down, and I always get back up.
But Brenda just couldn’t do that. She often told me, ‘I wish that bullet that got Mom had killed me. I hate this life.’ ”
Tracy, who spent much of her 20s using alcohol “to keep me from feeling,” knows exactly how her sister felt but insists it’s the memory of her mother that keeps her getting out of bed each morning. “There have been times I’ve wanted to give up, but I push through for her,” says the twice-married grandmother of six. “I want her to be proud of me. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.”
Every year on the anniversary of the massacre, Tracy places her mother’s photo on a table by the front window of her house and surrounds it with lit candles. Her story has no closure, no happy ending. “Time doesn’t heal anything,” she says, shaking her head. “When I was a little girl, I used to stare at this sign [Jones] had nailed up over his chair in church that read, ‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.’ I didn’t understand what that meant back then, but I do now.
A SURVIVOR’S STORY Jonestown survivor Tracy Parks (inset, today and at age 12) recalls the horror she felt when she learned of the mass suicide in which Jim Jones (inset left) and 909 of his followers died on Nov. 18, 1978. “I knew Jim Jones wanted us dead,” she says.